Despite an English translation that may suggest fearful or tragic themes in America, Día de los Muertos is a joyful holiday in Mexican culture, during which people remember loved ones who have passed away.
For chef Edwin Cruz, the celebration is an opportunity to honor his late grandmother, Doña Elena.
Each year, he places her picture on an altar and lights a candle in her memory, though it his through his daily actions as an entrepreneur that he honors Doña Elena. She is, after all, the inspiration behind his catering and meal delivery business, Edwin’s Organix, and the reason he’s so passionate about using locally and sustainably sourced organic ingredients.
Cruz moved to Charlotte from Mexico when he was 11 years old, but remembers his grandmother cooking almost every day in Mexico — especially on Wednesdays when the farmers market was on her street.
“She would always be the first one to get fresh vegetables, chicken or whatever she wanted to cook. She would cook this big pot at her house and just feed people when they were coming by to say hi to her,” Cruz said. “She had this huge table at the bottom of this mango tree and people would just come to her house and eat as she cooked.”
That’s where Cruz said he got his desire to cook for people using the best, local ingredients. Since launching Edwin Organix in 2018, he frequents the North End Farmers Market at Camp North End and the Uptown Farmers Market to grab supplies for his clients’ weekly meal-prep kits, as well as his guest chef appearances at local restaurants and private events.
Cruz said clean and healthy cooking also holds personal meaning, as he believes it gave him more time with his grandmother when she was battling cancer.
She was diagnosed while visiting the United States from Mexico and told she had six months to live. In addition to chemotherapy, the family switched her to an organic diet of mostly chicken and vegetables like beets and carrots, with no red meat, salt or condiments. Three months later, she was in remission. Cruz believes healthy food played a role.
Eventually, Doña Elena’s cancer came back and she passed away in 2016, but her family was thankful for the extra time they got to spend with her beyond the doctor’s prognosis. She was at home in Mexico when she passed.
“I called her and she said something and then she died. She was just holding on for me,” Cruz recalled. “I remember that day like it was yesterday.”
Building a brand
Cruz doesn’t have any formal culinary training — he dropped out of culinary school in Mexico because it wasn’t hands-on enough for him — and instead attributes everything he knows about cooking to his parents. He gained professional experience as a chef at Famous Toastery in Winston-Salem, where he was given free rein to create daily chef specials before eventually leaving to start Edwin’s Organix.
It took Cruz a few years to build his client base and foster necessary partnerships within Charlotte’s restaurant industry, but he was steadfast. With time, his love for experimenting with different foods and flavors paid off.
He now splits his time at Edwin’s Organix between meal prepping for clients — using variations of his mother’s recipes based on available ingredients — and popping up as a guest chef at local breweries and restaurants.
Cruz has been known to craft special themed menus at places like Poplar Tapas, Wine & Spirits and 7th Street Market. Last year, he worked with mixologist Jenni Holloway to create five courses paired with five crystal-infused cocktails for a Crystals & Cocktails event at Poplar.
“I go through a lot of ingredients to come up with the menus,” he said. “If you look at my apartment and open the fridge, there’s a lot of stuff in there, and then I’ve got shelving. My house, it looks like a kitchen.”
When he’s not sharing recipes on Charlotte Today, hosting resident events at luxury apartment complexes Uptown, partnering with Charlotte Wine + Food, or creating Mexican-inspired coffees with Drip Joint Espresso Bar, Cruz can be booked for private events.
Edwin’s Organix recently participated in a free Día de los Muertos celebration on Oct. 30 at Nebedaye Farms, an urban farm located on 11 acres in Indian Trail. Run by Bernard Singleton, the goal of Nebedaye Farms is to address food insecurity issues and improve the quality of life in underserved areas of Charlotte.
At the event, Cruz cooked up chickens and made pan de muertos — a sweet bread traditionally baked in Mexico in the weeks leading up to Día de los Muertos — while Drip Joint served hot chocolate and coffee against the backdrop of a colorful altar, where Cruz placed a picture of his grandmother. The evening ended with a screening of the movie Coco.
Cruz’s next event is scheduled for Nov. 19, when he will serve a seven course hemp-infused tasting menu at Queen Hemp Company, a woman-owned hydroponic hemp farm in south Charlotte. Guests will experience each dish, paired with a cocktail and a song, inside the farm’s flower room surrounded by hundreds of hemp plants.
“It took me three months to create the menu,” Cruz said. “If I did a paella, I did a sangria, and then I’ll pair it with some Spanish song. If it was Mexican, I pair it with a Mexican song and a mezcal drink.”
‘You don’t give up’
By the turn of 2020, Cruz felt like Edwin’s Organix had hit its groove. He was looking forward to being booked for the entire year. Then, like with so many others, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and it was one cancellation after the other.
Cruz was quick to adapt, hosting live cooking videos on Facebook and Instagram, which eventually led to a partnership with Compare Foods. He still hosts a monthly virtual recipe challenge on the supermarket’s social media pages and a segment on their CompareTV channel in which he shows people how to make meals that reflect his Mexican heritage.
If that wasn’t enough, Cruz started Drip Joint with Chris Johnson during the pandemic and in December 2020, he began incorporating charcuterie boards into the Edwin’s Organix portfolio, sourcing local cheese makers. He founded this extension of his brand, Brewster & Co. Charcuterie, with Poplar’s marketing director Trish Ellington.
Doña Elena may be behind Cruz’s passion for healthy cooking and belief in buying and supporting local, but his unquenchable work ethic comes from his mother, he explained.
“I cannot name one thing that my mom has not sold, from Avon to Tupperware to always having events at the house, like Tupperware parties, even Mary Kay,” Cruz said. “And of course, my dad is always working, but I think I got from my mom that part where you don’t give up.”
Cruz wishes his grandmother was still alive to see how she not only inspired but continues to fuel his culinary success. And if she were here, he knows exactly what she would say.
“‘Mijo! I’m so proud of you,’ and then a kiss,” he said.